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What is the History of Business Cards?

business cards

The Business Card

The cornerstone of business stationary is the business card. Where did it come from, and why does it matter?

Visiting Cards

The Visiting card of Johann van Beethoven apothecary shop (Brother of Ludwig van Beethoven)

The earliest examples of business cards were actually called "Visiting Cards," first appearing in China in the 15th Century. These were essentially small cards that people would carry around with them, describing how awesome/interesting/important they were. A self-promotion brochure of sorts. If a person wanted to meet with another person, they would send a visiting card as a request to meet. People also used them when visiting an "elite establishment" in order to prove credentials before they were invited in.

By the middle of the 17th Century, these cards had reached the European elite. They were the size of a modern day playing card and were engraved, embossed and frequently included gold elements. Very specific etiquette surrounded the usage of these cards and they were used for all manner of social interactions - from business dealings to dating.

Trade Cards

Early 19th-century English-language trade card of John Maria Farina, cologne manufacturer, showing Farina Haus, Köln.

In the 17th century, addresses were not commonplace. This presented a challenge in major cities, as it made it challenging for people to find businesses. To solve this problem, "trade cards" were invented.

A trade card was typically printed on both sides. One side contained promotional information about the business. Another side featured a map to where the business was located so that customers could find the business.

Trade Cards + Visiting Cards = Business Cards

Image of stack of business cards

As the formality of the 17th century gave way to the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, so did the lines between social and trade related interaction. People needed a way to introduce both themselves and their businesses. This lead to the business card.

While trade cards and visiting cards have continued to exist, widespread use has not. The business card has evolved to replace both.